The End of COVID-19 May be Near, but a Bigger Threat to Mental Health Looms

Illustration by Laura Padilla-Castellanos

The COVID-19 pandemic has done incalculable damage to Americans’ mental health. Economic stress, illness and death among family and friends, limited social interaction and the cancellation of momentous events have all taken their toll. To no one’s surprise, more than 42% of people surveyed by the US Census Bureau in December 2020 Reported having experienced anxiety or depression symptoms within that month, an increase from the previous year’s 11%. Decline in mental health, however, did not begin with the pandemic—and it won’t end with it, either. Climate change has begun to affect mental health in various ways, including through acute post-disaster trauma, loss of community, housing and homelands following sudden and slow-onset climate change events, and everyday ecological anxiety. As the effects of climate change intensify, we need to be prepared for its impacts on the mental health of individuals and their communities. 

Natural disasters, which will increase in frequency and magnitude due to climate change, invoke severe mental health consequences for victims. These shocks, similar in some ways to those presented by the COVID-19 pandemic, produce widespread socioeconomic and psychological suffering that results in increased reports of post-traumatic stress disorder, anxiety, depression, sleep disorders, and emotional distress. Crucially, children, women, the elderly, the disabled, and minority and low-income populations are often the most vulnerable to these shocks and therefore their mental health impacts, too. These impacts are exacerbated by the weak mental healthcare infrastructure in many affected communities. Social services are often limited before disaster hits, so their availability and quality in post-disaster settings is even more woefully inadequate as a result of power outages, overcrowded hospitals, destroyed transportation infrastructure, and medication shortages. Many of the most vulnerable, highest-need victims are unable to access care for prolonged periods after a disaster strikes. 

Beyond their immediate impacts, natural disasters also have lasting effects on families and communities, both of which endanger mental health for years after disasters occur. A key example can be seen in New Orleans, where Hurricane Katrina barred thousands of disproportionately Black and low-income people from returning to their home neighborhoods even several years after the storm. Former sites of affordable housing were gentrified and rebuilt as mixed-income housing, making a return to their home neighborhoods financially unfeasible for longtime residents. The result has been a loss of home, culture, and sense of belonging for those displaced, all of which have tremendous implications for mental health, especially as these communities serve as an important source of emotional support. In fact, one article in the journal American Ethnologist described families as having been “torn apart by Katrina, not simply by physical dispersal but by the emotional trauma of displacement and the continuous, arduous stress of failed recovery.” These sources of trauma build upon and compound the immediate distress caused by disaster and pre-existing mental illness in vulnerable communities, causing long-lasting—often permanent—scars on the mental health of individuals and their communities. 

Even among those of us who haven’t lived through an environmental crisis (yet; the frequency and magnitude of disasters is expected to rise with global temperatures), climate change has already begun to affect our everyday lives. Eco-anxiety, defined by the American Psychological Association (APA) as the “chronic fear of environmental doom” that is expected to “worsen or trigger pre-existing mental health problems,” has already been experienced by many Americans to varying degrees. Eco-anxiety and climate change influence what we choose to eat and buy; how, when, and where we travel; whether we decide to have children and how many; and even where we choose—or are forced—to live. For example, rising sea levels are expected to fully submerge 48 islands in the Pacific Islands, a region home to 2.3 million people, by the year 2100. Once again, mass forced migration without possibility of return brings with it the loss of culture, community, and financial stability, all sources of trauma which have been identified as key mechanisms for declines in mental health.

President Biden pledged at his Earth Day Climate Summit to cut the country’s greenhouse gas emissions by 50% by 2030. While this mitigation plan is a step in the right direction, adaptation and resilience measures will become more important than ever as climate change continues to worsen. Policymakers can apply lessons learned from COVID-19 and past natural disasters to formulate effective interventions. These must include improving mental health services and delivery infrastructure, uplifting the voices of under-served and marginalized communities most affected by climate change issues, and launching education campaigns about climate change and mental health resilience for individuals and their communities. Though COVID-19 may be nearing its end, the effects of climate change are here to stay. 

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